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List of Common Misconceptions (wikipedia.org)
169 points by huhtenberg on June 27, 2010 | hide | past | favorite | 53 comments

Somehow I end up reading many of these backwards, due to the wording. When I see a "list of common misconceptions" containing bullet points like: "Christopher Columbus's efforts to obtain support for his voyages were not hampered by a European belief in a flat Earth." and "Napoleon Bonaparte was not especially short.", my immediate interpretation is that these listed claims are misconceptions (they appear in a list of misconceptions after all), and so the opposite is actually true: Christopher Columbus was hampered by a European belief in a flat earth, and Napoleon Bonaparte was especially short.

I do quickly realize it was backwards, but it reads very weirdly to me. If it's a list of misconceptions, shouldn't the misconceptions be the things in the list, with the corrections following each one as explanatory text?

Especially since the introduction says:

"This list of common or popular misconceptions contains some fallacious, misleading, or otherwise flawed ideas"

so fix it :P

It's because you read like a programmer. You see a data structure (multiple data points within a single page) and then you apply the "False" modifier to every object in that structure without really parsing/grokking the prose.

Try to read more carefully.

>However, the normal convention when stating a nationality or, for instance, saying one is from Berlin, would be to leave out the indefinite article "ein." Though JFK's intention would have been, and was, understood by Berliners, he should have said, Ich bin Berliner.

Funny how in an article about common misconceptions a myth like that gets to live on (by being replaced with a new one).. I can't speak for Berlinerisch, as I've never lived in Berlin myself, but in standard German both versions - with and without the indefinite article - are 100% correct. The version suggested in the article might be slightly more common ("Ich bin Berliner"), but for JFK's speech I'd even go as far and say his version was better, simply because it stresses that he's "ein Berliner", just like all the other people listening to his speech. As I said, though, both versions are correct, and neither of them sounds better/worse. (Sorry, no source, but I know a bit of German.)

I'm German and you're 100% correct.

I'm also German, living near Berlin, and I had to analyze Kennedy's speech in an exam at school.

I fully agree that "Ich bin ein Berliner" was the correct variant. The alternative phrase "Ich bin Berliner" wouldn't have fit well into the context of his speech.

The alternative phrase "Ich bin Berliner" wouldn't have fit well into the context

Why not?

I think the indefinite article adds emphasis. (I’m definitly not a grammar expert but I’m German.) He not just somehow happens to be a Berliner, he affirms to be a Berliner.

(I have an alternate hypothesis: like all Germans I heard that sentence a few dozen times, saw it again and again repeated on TV. Maybe the sentence just made that usage correct by sheer force of its existence. I would say that’s unlikely, but it’s possible. What I’m sure about, though, is that everyone who listened to JFK knew what he wanted say.)

Is it perhaps the same difference as between "I am English" and "I am an Englishman"?

Presumably you'd need to be a true bilingual to tell if they feel the same, and even then, your thought processes aren't going to be the same as either type of monolingual.

> Is it perhaps the same difference as between "I am English" and "I am an Englishman"?

Yes, that's a very good analogy.

If you say "Ich bin Berliner", it just means that you live in Berlin. I doesn't put any emphasis on identifying with a certain group of people. It merely says that you belong to this group, maybe just by accident.

However, if you say "Ich bin ein Berliner", especially in the context of his speech, it means that you identify yourself with the group, i.e. with the people of Berlin.

That's why I disagree with that point of the Wikipedia article. "Ich bin ein Berliner" was a perfect formulation. I guess Kennedy got the help of a native German speaker or had a very good translator.

This is so opposite to the view that we were all taught in North America (namely that Kennedy's statement was a gaffe that made him a laughingstock) that I wonder how the misconception even arose. No one ignorant of German would have come up with the idea that JFK said he was a jelly doughnut, but from what you guys are saying, no one who knows German would have thought that either. Perhaps it was clever Soviet disinformatsia!

> Perhaps it was clever Soviet disinformatsia!

Either that, or it was the usual cause for rumors: sciolism.

It could also have started as a dumb joke, which was then taken seriously by people who didn't know better.

Aesthetically (to this English-speaker), the rhythm of "Ich bin ein Berliner" seems more pleasing than "Ich bin Berliner."


>I've never lived in Berlin myself, but in standard German both versions - with and without the indefinite article - are 100% correct

I find this intriguing as my German language instructor (we focussed on grammar and technical language but also did conversational German) informed me that "Ich bin ein Berliner" was simply wrong and that it was a kindergarten style mistake - as I blushed and corrected myself "Ich bin Patent-prüfer".

I always get a chuckle when I see this list. Other than literacy and arithmetic, it's like the curriculum from kindergarten to fourth grade.

I think it's a good reminder that there are some things you believe that are not true.

Some things I believe, some things you believe.

No matter how informed or educated or logical we believe ourselves to be.

It's something to keep in mind.

I think just about everything anyone believes is false, or at least arbitrary and unfounded. We lack the frameworks to examine the vast majority of things that determine our decisions, and are thus de facto beliefs.

I would chuckle, but I don't when I hear things like 20 percent of Americans are functionally illiterate and read below a 5th grade level.

More common misconceptions are debunked in "Don't Swallow Your Gum!: Myths, Half-Truths, and Outright Lies About Your Body and Health".


Why was this downvoted? It's a great book, and it's on topic.

There should be a law against downvoting without giving a reason :)

"While putting metal in a microwave can damage the magnetron by causing an impedance mismatch, it depends on the shape and size of the metal and the time it is in the microwave. Electrical arcing may also occur on pieces of metal that are not smooth, or have points (e.g. a fork). Distributed metallic surfaces that are not subject to arcing and do not appreciably alter the magnetron's RF load can be used in a microwave with no danger; examples include the metalized surfaces used in browning sleeves and pizza-cooking platforms."

I learned something today! I had always thought that ALL metal in the microwave was verboten. Fascinating that it's the shape of the metal, not its material, that matters.

There even some microwaves that are sold with a metal plate/ grate that can inserted inside to cook fish or vegetables on.

I guess the metal will absorb the microwave energy and heat up and then the food will get seared by contact with the metal, instead of directly receiving the microwave radiation.

My parents have one of those microwaves and when I saw it I was just as perplexed about it.

My understanding along with the comments in the article is that non ferrous metals are acceptable.

Interestingly, it was only later in my life (late teens - boarding school) that I learned metal was bad. I spent my childhood warming my breakfast cereal with the metal spoon in the bowl, no problems. (Nobody wants a cold spoon with warm cereal!) Now I know why I never had a problem - glad I didn't eat breakfast with a fork.

Who eats warm cereal? is my question. Is this common where you grew up? If so, may I ask where that was?

It's normal for oat based cereals (such as http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ready_Brek) and porridge to be eaten warm. These are common breakfasts in Europe - I don't know about the US. When I visited the US South a decade ago, I had grits which were also warm, but I don't know if that's the common way.

It's been a while since I, personally, have had porridge, but it's far from dead here in the states.

Eating some oatmeal right now, actually.

Here in Minnesota, USA, warm cereals (primarily oatmeal, Malt-o-meal and Cream of Wheat) are very popular in the colder months (September through April or May, most years).

They also rock when you're sick, especially with a sore throat (as I am today).

However, I almost always cook mine on the stove top, not in the microwave.

I realized this only after accidentally heating a metal cup.

>It is not the color of the cape that angers the bull, but rather the movement of the fabric that irritates the bull and incites it to charge. [from the Sports section]

I worked for the University of Maryland's Dairy Barn on the College Park campus for a couple of years in the early 1980s, and I discovered you do not want to try rounding up cows in the pasture wearing a rain poncho. It terrifies them so much they run all over the place rather than going into the barn like they were supposed to. The color was immaterial - tan and brown were as bad as yellow.

But why!? What happened during the course of bovine evolution that would result in cattle being so terrified of large swaths of fabric.

I suspect the rippling and waving of the poncho resembles something unseen moving through tall grass. And in the poncho case masking the identity or even humanness of its wearer.

Evolutionary pressure from http://redwinggreen7.livejournal.com/96599.html#cutid2-end, what else?

It seems to have worked! Bovine are plentiful, but you rarely see cloakers :-D

Cape is not used to irritate, the bull attacks you. The cape makes the bull think that you're moving in a direction while in fact you're not. The bulls can't see well in short distances. Anyway, when the bullfighter is using the muleta (the small cape), special care must be taken to put it so it hides the feet.

Interesting -- it turns out that the truth about the makeup of George Washington's dentures (gold, hippopotamus ivory, lead, and human and animal teeth) is actually much weirder than the common misconception (wood).

Looks like he was the 18th Century Million Dollar Man.

What, no geography?

* The largest freshwater lake (by surface area) is not lake Superior, but lake Michigan-Huron.

* North America contains more than three countries (I'm lookin' at you, Jon Stewart!), including St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

> The largest freshwater lake is not lake Superior, but lake Michigan-Huron.

It's actually neither if they are compared by volume and not the surface area, in which case the largest lake is Baikal.

I went back and edited my comment to include the qualification figuring that someone was eventually going to clarify this. Looks like you commented at the same time I was editing. :)

Scientific Method

Honestly I would not call this one a misconception. In fact I'm pretty close revising that section or just removing it altogether.

The "textbook definition" is simple only in that it is abstract. It's not rigid at all, in fact it's extremely flexible. If what you are doing can't ultimately be described by the scientific method then what you are doing is not science and you probably shouldn't pretend that it is. Paleontology, and astronomy, for example, still involve observation and hypothesis, even though many predictions cannot be tested with existing technology. Just because discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation was discovered accidentally doesn't mean it's not an empirical observation.

Yes, reality has more details. But in my experience, so many people fail to understand even the simple scientific method that worrying about the realities of how actual professionals practice science is rather silly.

A big part of the reason that so many people fail to understand even the simple scientific method is because of the way the textbook version of that method is presented. The way the scientific method is often taught in public schools in America is as a rigid formula, or at best a recipe.

Among other things, this leads people to misunderstand the iterative nature of science, the nature of an on-going scientific investigation, the particular creative difficulties that come with doing science, and so on.

It is not taught as something abstract. To do that, you'd have to provide a series of disparate examples from different sciences and show how they all involved observation and hypothesis in a way that made sense of the method as defined.

Here's an alternative presentation by people who are concerned about this sort of thing:


Right, "the people who are concerned about this sort of thing" and push that agenda on the wiki page. Next to misconceptions like Columbus proving the world was round and that the daddy-longlegs is the deadliest spider, arguments about about how precisely to simplify elementary education of the scientific method are rather out of place.

Seriously, is it worth piling on concepts like peer review and publication to education of the scientific method? Peer review and publication are specific contemporary terms used by professional scientists. If you're a regular person and want to learn something, for example, how a particular feature of a programming library works, or how much load your servers can handle, or how spellcasting works in your favorite MMO, it's far more useful to understand the so-called 'rigid' scientific method than it is to understand peer review and scientific journals. It's not a "misconception."

I would say it's important, although the base is of course also important by itself.

People in general rarely understand how science really works. It's glaring in journalism where often an article takes some non-reviewed research and cites it like it's an established truth, or in vague quotes like "some scientists believe X", where the scientist is actually in a domain not at all related to X. I also see a lot of people who cannot grasp how a given source may be more reliable than another one, even if both are written by "scientists". Things like the "evolution is just a theory" would also be less prevalent if people understood how science works.

Journalists don't write articles like that, though, because they are thinking in terms of the textbook definition of science. They write like that when they have less interest in knowledge and intellectual rigor than emotions and gossip, in which case the meaning of science is not important one way or the other.

Comments like "evolution is just a theory" would be less prevalent no matter which definition of science was applied: the simple, elegant textbook definition or the complicated, several-page Berkeley definition. The problem is not that one is applied over the other, the problem is that neither is applied..

It's almost as though some common myths are being busted. (less kaboom.)

On topic: Wikipedia's lists are usually fun. WP has become my search engine of choice for things apart from error messages, or when I think I know what I'm looking for (or close).

I just cannot get over this one (it is 3rd on the list in the Physics section) -


I had never heard of Thomas Crapper. That's one misconception that must live on...

I'd always thought that it was Alexander Crapper. I got the important part right, though.

Talk about an article with potential for vandalism... people will believe anything you label a historical misconception. I would know, I do this to my friends all the time.

Of all the misconceptions on that page that I had been exposed to, I was exposed to them in public school. I wonder if they're still teaching kids this stuff.

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